As the school funding issue became clearer out of Helena, four school districts around Madison County settled on levies to put before their voters.
School districts in Sheridan, Twin Bridges and Harrison will all be holding special levy elections. Sheridan and Harrison will hold theirs on June 20 and Twin Bridges will hold its special levy election in June 14.
Out of the recent legislative session came one bill that essentially set the funding levels for schools around the state, said Denise Ulberg, budget specialist with the Montana Office of Public Instruction in Helena.
Senate Bill 329 essentially set the school districts’ maximum general fund levels along with what the state entitlements, or funding, would be, Ulberg said.
And though state funding increased over last year, it didn’t keep up with inflation and didn’t account for one-time only federal money that was used to supplement school budgets last year, she said. So the net amount to school districts amounted to a cut.
“The districts actually saw a decrease in the rates of one percent,” Ulberg said. “Basically the local taxpayers are taking up the burden of them being able to maintain at the same level.”
In recent years school funding kept up with inflation, but that won’t happen over the next two years, she said.
“Overall, it’s a 2.6 percent increase over the biennium. Over the past three years, (school districts) have gotten three percent (increases) each year,” Ulberg said. “Now it’s not even three percent over the next two years.”
In Sheridan, the elementary and high school districts are both running general fund levies. The elementary district is seeking a $57,591 general fund levy and the high school district is asking for a $22,885 levy.
These levies will allow the school to stay at essentially the same funding level as this past year, said Kim Harding, Sheridan superintendent.
Two teachers retired from Sheridan this year, which allowed district officials enough flexibility to hire back all their teachers, Harding said.
However, the levies are needed to maintain other programs and janitorial staff, she said.
If the levies don’t pass, the district will have to make cuts in areas like teaching supplies and field trips.
If passed, the elementary levy would mean an increase of $30.39 in taxes on a $100,000 home this year. If the high school levy is passed, it would mean an $11.16 increase in taxes on a $100,000 home.
In Twin Bridges, school officials are asking voters to approve both a general fund and building reserve levy, said superintendent Chad Johnson.
The building reserve levy would be for $25,000 a year for five years and would result in an annual tax of $11.07 on a $100,000 home. The general fund levy would be for $25,000 and have similar tax implication as the building reserve levy.
Like Sheridan, the Twin Bridges School district has hired back all its teachers, Johnson said. However, should the general fund levy fail, cuts will have to be made somewhere.
The building reserve levy replaces another five-year building reserve levy that is expiring, he said.
In Harrison, the school district has already cut back their budget from last year, said superintendent Darren Strauch.
The school had an elementary teacher leave and the school board decided not to fill the vacancy unless the levy passed, Strauch said.
However, without the teacher, the kindergarten, first and second grades – about 14 kids –will all be in one classroom, he said. It’s not an ideal situation and one the school hopes to avoid.
The Harrison general fund levy will be for $30,000 and result in an increase in taxes of $21.96 on a $100,000 home. If passed, the levy still wouldn’t bring the district even with this past year’s funding level, Strauch said.
“We’re still trying to be fiscally responsible with everybody’s money,” he said. “We’ve been lucky around here. We’ve experienced a lot of support from the community in the school and we’re really appreciative of that.”